Sport usually helps define someone’s character. But just occasionally, a player comes along that is so special they help to reshape the game and the way it is played. They set the parameters and the rest of us follow.
Brian O’Driscoll is one of those people.
When he burst onto the scene he looked like the pasty schoolboy he was. Every shirt seemed sodden with water, every smile that of an innocent. But my God, he could play. This was no naive kid – this was a man on a mission. The outside break, the gas, the bravery, the blur of green. He not only fitted into the Irish game of manic pressure but helped take it to the next level.
Look back at those games and you see someone who is ahead of their time in the way that they played. He became a hero, a country’s pride and joy, their talisman.
The problem, though, when you are out in front is that eventually people catch up. Brian, like so many others, looked at one point to be on his way out – injuries were taking their toll and critics questioned just how long someone could keep going at that level. But Brian then did what all great players and stars do – he reinvented himself. He worked out what was needed to do to survive and thrive; he tweaked his game, he rebuilt his physique, he evolved.
He is quite simply, the Madonna of Irish and World Rugby. Like the singing sensation, just when you thought he was past it, he would suddenly pop back up. But, as even Madge will have to admit at some point soon, there comes a time when you no longer want to keep sweating in your smalls on a Saturday. Brian has taken that step and it is not easy.
He has retired, now almost a former player, and rugby is poorer for it. How good was he really? Put it this way – no matter what anyone says, deep down, we all wanted Brian to be on our team. We wished he had lost the lilt and developed a London twang, a Valleys chorus or a Highlands burr. But he never did and our loss was Ireland’s gain. A once in a lifetime player who spanned generations and has helped write Ireland’s rugby future. Not a bad legacy is it.